Between Hope and Hopelessness

Troubling the stage and the body as places of stable representation, the choreographer and performer Ligia Lewis invites frictions and ruptures into her creative process. Between March 15 and 18, HAU originally planned to show “A Melancholic Melody / A Will To An End – A Series of Works by Ligia Lewis”, including Lewis’ recent performance trilogy – “Sorrow Swag,” performed in a saturated blue, “minor matter,” a poetic work illuminated in red, and “Water Will (in Melody),” a gothic tale set in black and white. Unfortunately, this had to be cancelled in order to prevent a rapid spread of the coronavirus. Although it’s not a replacement of the live performance, you can read here an interview with Lewis, first published in Bomb Magazine.

Your work unseats the position of mastery that a spectator in a proscenium theater might assume will be given to them. That’s achieved through these moments of illegibility, where perception and knowledge slip away. Scenographically, dramaturgically, or choreographically, movement gets interrupted or shifts midway; just at the moment the spectator is starting to get a handle on what’s happening, something dissolves or transforms. 

I like producing a slippery relationship between the audience and performers. How do I build a fugitive choreography, one that’s always in the process of escaping itself, then coming back to reaffirm itself, only to slide away again? The act of interpreting a choreography is made live by the performers, which is the invitation in my work. I’m fortunate to work with brilliant performers, and this kind of dynamic interpretation is present in the pieces.

Alongside their interpretations, there’s a logic for how movements or embodiments unfold in space and time. Light and sound undergo a similar process. In “Sorrow Swag”, light and sound produce qualities of immersion, and at times distance or disappearance. And in “minor matter”, light and sound offer a feeling of seemingly endless unfolding. In “Water Will”, light is more hypnotic, fantastical. The unsettling qualities emerge out of different choreographic proposals that always include sound and light. I like when something familiar suddenly touches upon the uncanny, or a series of activities or movements is interrupted, or sonic and visual shiftiness disrupts the flow of things and creates a hiccup in perception. 

I indulge in nonlinear thinking and allow myself to riff or go in multiple directions in a piece. This lends itself to going sideways versus straight forward. I’m an intense reader of my own work, but not in an analytical sense. It’s an intuitive process.

A key component of this trilogy is its antagonism toward white supremacist logics.

Your work is a kind of theoretical object in its own right. You’re a keen reader of Saidiya Hartman, Hortense Spillers, and Fred Moten, among others. How do you see your work in dialogue with the discourses of black studies?

That’s an incredible bunch. Saidiya Hartman and Denise Ferreira da Silva are among many inspiring thinkers and writers who particularly move me at the moment – beyond my comprehension, beyond my possible illustration, and at times to tears. I don’t want to force a relationship between theory and dance because the practice of dancing is already producing its own theoretical framework, its own sets of rules, and its own ethos, coherent to itself. 

In my work, I often start with something more obscure, like an image or a sound, or a sense of movement. Maybe later I’ll invite texts into my process as a way to elaborate further on what I’m intuiting. Having a strong political will, as I do, often sets me up for failure and lots of creative impossibility. Being able to think next to a text or another person becomes crucial to understanding how I want to be working. Within this trilogy especially, the oscillation between hope and hopelessness inspired me to think more deeply about my practice and what I wanted to privilege inside of it. The pieces work through so many of my own thoughts, experiences, affects, and impressions, and those of my collaborators. Additional texts that seem conducive to the work are also present. A key component of this trilogy is its antagonism toward white supremacist logics – the logics of empire – and their hold on the body. The audience becomes witness to this. 

Your work is antagonistic, yet it also gives so much. 

Thank you. Last night my brother was like, “The people here are really loving your work, which is cool. It might not be the right people, but…” And I just had to laugh. I could be busy with the fact that a large portion of my audience is white bourgeois viewers. It’s something I wrestle with. But at the same time, generosity enables me to take hold of the space and try to make it mine, even if only for a moment. 

This interview, Ligia Lewis by Catherine Damman, was commissioned by and first published in BOMB No. 147, Spring 2019. © Bomb Magazine, New Art Publications, and its Contributors. All rights reserved. The BOMB Digital Archive can be viewed at bombmagazine.org.

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Generosity acknowledges that the work doesn’t have to be for everyone. You can speak to and with different audiences, beyond those in the performance space.

I used to have this naive and romantic idea about making work for a general public, having had a kind of populist disposition. I wonder about that now. (laughter) I think I was attracted to this idea initially because I wanted to avoid making dance only for a community that specializes in it, which is not so exciting to me. But as you said, different audiences are meeting the work, which doesn’t neatly fit into the category of dance, and all of this is important to me. Also, through my work, I’ve met other artists and folks who are really inspiring, and ultimately that’s what it’s about. 

Who have some of those encounters been with? 

So many, but to name a few that ended up in collaborative processes: Nkisi, founding member of NON Worldwide (with Chino Amobi and Angel-ho), a DJ collective comprised mostly of members from the black diaspora. I joined her and NON a couple years ago on a project at Hebbel Am Ufer in Berlin, and since then we’ve maintained an artistic dialogue. She and I also contributed to the work of visual artist Paul Maheke, for a video entitled “Levant”. Working with Wu Tsang on the film “We Hold Where Study” was pretty amazing. And of course I continue to work with my brother, Twin Shadow. I joined him at Afropunk; he joined me for “Sorrow Swag”, and we’ll continue to work together. I have an upcoming commission at the High Line, and he will likely be part of it. 

Oh, importantly, a young scholar and performance maker, Mlondi Zondi, and I have a very fruitful exchange. He wrote about “minor matter”, picking up on things I would have potentially overlooked. It’s rewarding to have my work interface with such brilliant people.

I’m critical of visibility politics because it’s in the name of inclusion, often in a bland liberal project that I don’t want to be committed to.

What were some of the things that came out of these dialogues?

With Mlondi, we’ve been tripping a lot on the limits of what choreography can do and be in relationship to politics and representation. As this is all very complicated, he and I reflect together­ – he as theorist, me as practitioner. I’m busy trying to enact these limits; he reflects deeply on them. 

How does one respond to this seemingly intractable problem of institutions wanting the work without doing the work when it comes to black artists? All in the name of “diversity” or “inclusion,” with the motivation being at once exculpatory ­– a way to atone for previous exclusion ­– and rooted in the logics of cultural capital, wherein blackness is trendy or cool. This is not a new phenomenon.

Well, I have a kind of allergy to visibility politics. I take a pretty pessimistic view toward institutions, particularly those that don’t enter a space of self-reflection, or more importantly, self-critique, when they program work by artists of color. Friends share their stories of dealing with institutions both in Europe and the US, still having to explain things that seem obvious. Like, do people think we’re silly enough to believe that our own visibility is actually the goal? I’m critical of visibility politics because it’s in the name of inclusion, often in a bland liberal project that I don’t want to be committed to. I’m curious what will come of this moment, how it will be written about, and what else is to come. Hopefully more noise. 

Perhaps one antidote is to luxuriate in specificity, so let’s turn to the specifics of your work. Rewatching the “Bolero scene” in “minor matter” this weekend, I was thinking about Maurice Béjart’s ballet and how you – perhaps not destroy, but definitely transform it. The movement is the original choreography, yet it also becomes a groove that’s not present in, say, Sylvie Guillem’s performance of this dance.

I love Béjart’s “Bolero”; it’s epic. I prefer Jorge Donn’s version to Guillem’s. His uniquely queer articulation is more fascinating to watch. Approaching “Bolero”, I wanted to imagine a version that’s not about the soloist, so my version quickly transforms into a trio, an ensemble work. Our syncopated rhythms as performers meet the syncopated rhythms of Carl Craig and Moritz von Oswald’s “ReComposed, Vol. 3”, featuring the “Bolero”. Something happens when I’m busy with rhythm. Both the body and the performative situation operate together in a way that I don’t experience as autonomous or unique.

How do we read flesh versus a body?

You’re also drawing on the tradition of stepping, among other things. 

Yes, the choreography is derived from step, which we understand in America as something performed in fraternities and sororities. But it finds its root in Gumboot, the South African folk dance that also became a protest dance. This might be the most iconic moment of minor matter; but, I think it’s great in large part because of what succeeds it – the virtuosity of Thami Manekehla’s soliloquy, precariously placed in the periphery of the black box. It’s beautiful to see diaspora enacted in real time: Thami’s performing this as something he learned as a folk dance, and then Jonathan Gonzalez, an American who studied step, is performing his version, while I dance alongside them. Its value emerges out of the process. Performers Corey Scott-Gilbert and Tiran Willemse have since joined the tour, and I’m so grateful for their energetic contributions. I see this moment not just as a cultural referent and what it signifies, but for its material potency and its blur, created by the sound score that moves from Ravel’s “Bolero” (Craig and von Oswald’s version) – which slides into a house track, with samples from Donna Summer to Arthur Russell – to more obscure musical inserts introduced by musicologist Michal Libera. I can’t think about this dance moment outside the sound score, its energetic push and pull. The piece was conceived through how sound would operate within it – an investigation in futurity.

It becomes social, collective. At the end, you’re all wrestling and sparring, and these precarious reconfigurations of extreme exertion start to crumble and begin again, up the walls and in different places in the arena. You end on these different ways of being together, leaning on each other, and trying again and again.

The last section is called “Apocalypse.” It’s my favorite part. (laughter) The house lights come up; you hear the clamor of us – jumping off one another and falling, really falling, and trying to get back up, basically building these precarious, and at times impossible, assemblages that lend themselves to falling. The clamor is important because the sound has been so active throughout the piece, and then suddenly it’s just us and our laughter and our – I wouldn’t say pain, but sometimes it does hurt. You’re like, “Damn, you just hit me,” and someone else yells, “No, you did!” And all of that becomes part of the play. This section disassembles the fantasy of the body as whole and organized. I was trying to get to the point when a body transforms into flesh. How do we read flesh versus a body? In this clamor and noise, there’s the capacity to understand flesh as vulnerable yet binding. Our bodies falling up against the walls of the black box builds this complicated relationship between us and the object we’re up against and, in part, supported by. I was interested in the instability of that. 

That collectivity is necessary and urgent in the face of what Hortense Spillers would call the “zero degree of conceptualization” – these kinship structures that exist outside or before the white supremacist recognition of subjecthood. 

Yes! And it’s really difficult to be together. I definitely felt that in the process of collaborating with Thami and Jonathan. It was challenging. What was beautiful was that we were all committed to the process. Consensus erases a lot of possibility. Maybe I’m posturing toward anarchy.

How can I bend the theater to my liking in order to create space for something else?

Tell me about your newest work, “Water Will (in Melody)”, which concludes the trilogy.

Well, it’s an ambitious proposal – I’ve reinforced the proscenium with a Victorian style theater curtain adorning the stage. It’s the opposite of Brecht’s “vorhang” – ours is used for its more sensual qualities, although its material presence does heighten the fiction. Reflecting on the dubious entanglements of nature, the feminine, darkness, and blackness, this piece uses the “nature” of the theater to think through such themes. It’s gothic, erotic, and borders on the absurd. A black and white melodrama ensues through mime. We basically mime for our lives. (laughter) The work is a hybrid, sort of nineteenth-century Southern Gothic meets German Romanticism meets early silent film. It uses the Brothers Grimm tale “The Willful Child” to think through notions of willfulness and when this is rendered legible or illegible. And of course, this is gendered and more importantly, racialized. The use of the fairytale was inspired in part by Sara Ahmed’s reflections in “Willful Subjects”. The piece departs from there and moves relationally into a poetics I’m very excited about, with the audience being the general will and wall against the four performers onstage, Susanne Sachsse, Dani Brown, Titilayo Adebayo, and myself. We perform with incredible light design by my oft artistic collaborator Ariel Efraim Ashbel and sound arranged and designed by S. McKenna. 

How do you join these disparate elements – the fantastical, the history of terror, and the playfulness?

In the first half of “Water Will”, everything is made explicit, exteriorized, exposed. Mime functions well for this. There’s an oversaturation of signifiers, so the work operates on excess and abundance. Overlapping speech stutters, chokes, and swallows itself, becoming a sonic screen from which our bodies are either further exposed or later veiled. Rachmaninov’s “Isle of the Dead”, the primary source of music, is made unrecognizable – droned out, at times pitched and slowed down – to the point that it sounds as if submerged in water. This music plays overtop parts of the illegible speech, which is the opaque counterpart in the piece. Through these choreographic procedures, the work becomes monstrous, tragic, and strangely beautiful. 
Through this trilogy I’ve been processing all of these different things in relation to race, asking how can I bend the theater to my liking in order to create space for something else. I don’t think that question will ever disappear.